Nov 6, 2019 in Politics

Aspects of the Opium War 1839-1842

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were marked by the colonial division of the world between the major European states, and first of all, France and England. The last troops penetrated into various corners of the world including the wilds of Africa, steppes of Asia, islands of Oceania and Amazon delta, conquering more and more lands. Capturing the hitherto free and independent nations and peoples, European colonists staged brutal regimes on these territories, taking advantage of the technical and military backwardness of these peoples that pumped out all values of the conquered land that were there, whether deposits of gold or wood. Those distant lands were quite rich and colonizers increasingly mastered them, and if they met some resistance, they ruthlessly suppressed the rebellion of natives, and sometimes, as was the case with the inhabitants of Tasmania, colonizers destroyed all the people, since the people tried to attack them. Current paper focuses on the premises, conduct, and consequences of the First Opium War, 1839-1842. 

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Reasons of the First Opium War

At first, when different parts of the world were still being discovered and people only had to study them, “Europeans acted very subtly, without revealing their predatory intentions”. So, first they came there under the guise of travelers, merchants, or sometimes missionaries, not disdaining to hide behind preaching of the Gospel in such dirty business. In this way, they united and created a certain base, inspired confidence, quietly making havoc among the tribes. After a while, the colonialists showed their true colors when British troops landed ashore, and cruisers were blocked by the bays of His Majesty. In this way, the islands of Oceania were conquered, as well as the lands of Africa and India. 

But China beckoned insatiable Europeans for centuries, the riches of the glory overshadowing everything people could learn. The vast country with millions of people, thousands of years of history, and centuries accumulated wealth and works of art chained greedy eyes of politicians and merchants of Albion, who wanted to at least penetrate this great country, than to clearly and consistently turn it into a colony. 

But all attempts of British and other European countries to enter and settle in China, whether in the guise of merchants, travelers and diplomats did not bring any result at all. It was due to the special principles of Chinese policy. The Chinese rulers regarded their empire as the center of the world, calling themself “Heavenly Emperor “, and Chinese ownership  “The Middle Kingdom.” All the other nations and sovereigns, including European, theoretically considered tributaries and vassals of the Emperor. His government did not accept strangers, and did not send their ambassadors to Europe. And when some people managed to get away from the ambassadors to the capital of the Emperor of China, passing thousands of obstacles, their mission was accompanied with all sorts of humiliation. “The Lord of the whole earth” considered it beneath his dignity to respond to the letter heads of foreign states. He instructed his ministers to do so. Beijing policy looked at the diplomatic representatives of Western states as messengers of vassal rulers that controlled barbarous peoples, who occupied the lowest level of civilization. Since the Manchu rulers “had no equal” outside of China, the representatives of other countries were not allowed to access them standing. All foreign ambassadors who arrived in China were seen as tributaries without exception. 

To emphasize their subordinate position in relation to the rulers of the Son of Heaven, an entire system of humiliating ceremonies was developed. Foreign ambassadors had to comply with a complex etiquette. The ambassador and his entourage had to kneel down at the command of a special official, and then do three prostrations. Then new command was pronounced, and the ambassador got up to immediately re-double down on his knees, and weighed three prostrations each time. After this, the same ceremony repeated, and the diplomat had turned his back to the door of the audience hall. 

As in ancient times, at the beginning of the XIX century foreigners were forbidden to stay in the Chinese capital for a long time, even the establishment of embassies and trade missions was forbidden. In 1757, at the behest of the Chinese emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) all the ports were closed to foreign trade with the sole exception of Guangzhou, where even in 1715 there was a trading post of the East India Company, and later other foreign trading posts. Trade with foreigners was conducted under the supervision of the Chinese authorized closed organization of Gunhan, privileged to Chinese merchants. 

This rigid policy of isolation has been caused not only by the ambitions of the Chinese government, who considered an insult to their dignity to communicate with the barbarians, but also a political calculation. According to Greenberg, Chinese emperors of the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) realized that in the contact with European countries, backward economically and militarily, China will become their prey, and it was easier to keep the tyrannical feudal regime where emperors of Qingas ruled. However, despite this tough line, Great Britain, Russia and other countries have continued to send embassies to China under various pretexts. So in 1793, the British Embassy came to China, headed by George McCartney who took aim to get permission of the emperor to organize trade in a number of British ports. However, this mission failed, as it was soon followed by the intrusion of Embassy of Lord Amherst, who refused to perform this humiliating ceremony. Russia's attempt in 1805 to establish relations with China was unsuccessful. 

The Beginning of the Conflict and the British Plan

In 1834, unable to penetrate through diplomacy in China, the British sent Lord Napier without the awareness and consent of the Chinese government, who was given the task to achieve the rights of the British trade in Beijing and enter into direct contact with the emperor in any way. However, even the governor of Guangzhou had not taken Napier. In response, the British decided to resort to intimidation, causing the cruiser. But the threat of action had no effect, and Napier, understanding the inequality of forces, did not dare to start a conflict. It seemed that the situation has reached an impasse and plans of British politicians and capitalists to conquer China have failed. But then the leadership of the British East India Company came up with an ingenious plan by means of which it was possible to conquer China. According to this plan, there was no need for any significant efforts and funds, and the empire falls into the hands of the British. In addition, the implementation of this plan would not require any costs, but would bring fabulous profits. The plan seemed to contradict with all the business laws that it was necessary to invest to receive income of any kind as it was ordered. According to this plan, there was nothing else to invest and profit was direct. 

At the heart of this plan lied ever-increasing import of opium in China, the production of which was organized in Bengal by the East India Company. The opium trade began to bring huge profits for the East India Company. Silver from China increasingly flowed into the pockets of the British capitalists. The harm of opium trade was not limited to economic depletion of the country. Opium caused damage to human health. Smoking of opium was a way of moral and physical expansion of the Chinese people, aggression that would kill people without any blood.

Confronting of Chinese Government against the Opium Trade

In the beginning the import of opium was several thousand boxes a year; in 1816 it reached almost 22 thousand of boxes, and in 1838 exceeded 40 thousand of boxes. Opium has quickly become the main and most profitable issue of British trade with China. At the same time, Chinese local authorities turned a blind eye, receiving a good percentage of profits from merchants in the form of bribes. Soon, the central Chinese government headed by the emperor Daoguang and the princes Lin Zexu began to raise the issue of the dangers of the opium trade. According to Karsh, “The question of the opium trade was the subject of lengthy discussion at the Beijing court. Some dignitaries, enriched by opium trade, spoke in favor of keeping opium trade for the “common people”. These proposals met harsh criticism of another group of officials led by Lin Zexu, who was an implacable enemy of opium trade, a man of great energy and iron will. Lin Zexu strongly disapproved opium trade. According to Zexu, “opium is a poison that spreads to China, the damage that it caused is huge, and the law should strictly forbid it. If you look at it through your fingers, in a few years there will be no soldiers in China who can protect us from the enemy, and there will be no silver to pay salaries”. His position was supported by the Emperor Daoguang, who also “realized the destructiveness of smoking opium for his subjects, undermining public health degradation of morals, the ruin of artisans, and the decline of discipline in the army”.

By the initiative of Lin Zexu and support of the emperor a decree was issued (March 18th, 1839) to give to Chinese the entire opium stockpiled under penalty of death. According to Chang, trading posts were surrounded by troops and 20,243 boxes of opium were given to the Chinese Commissioner, who dropped boxes in the lime pits and brine, and then fused to neighboring river.

First Opium War – a Course of Action

Conflict with England that lost profitable source of income and most importantly, the method of self-destruction of the Chinese nation was growing. Finally, in April 1840 the undeclared first Anglo-Chinese (“Opium”) war, in which England was the aggressor, pursuing aggressive goals, and China was the defending party leading a just war to preserve independence and sovereignty. British ships blockaded the ports of Canton in Guangdong, Amoy in Fujian Province, and Ningbo in the province of Zhejiang, estuaries Minjiang (in Fujian), the Yangtze and Baihe (in Zhili Bay). In July, 1840 British troops captured Dinghai, the main town of Zhoushan Islands (South-East of Shanghai) and subjected an island to complete looting, and its residents to unbridled violence. 

According to Marx and Engels, “In this war British conscription committed horrific atrocities purely for fun... Rape of women, children spitted on bayonets, burning entire villages of people, facts were registered by British officers that committed exclusively for the sake of wanton mischief”.

Once the war began, the Qing government did not follow a solid line. When British troops occupied the Zhoushan Island and threatened many cities on the coast, from Canton to Tianjiao, a supporter of determined resistance to the aggressors Lin Zexu was suspended, and Canton was sent as an authorized representative of Qi Shan, who entered into negotiations with the British and accepted their demands. But the defeatist act of Qi Shan caused outrage in different layers of the Chinese society, and the emperor could not approve the agreement. Shan Qi was arrested and his enormous wealth, millions mu of land, hundreds pounds of gold, diamonds boxes, millions liangs of silver were confiscated. Agreement had not been approved by the British government that expected to achieve great benefits. The reinforcements were sent to China. In 1841, the British captured the neighborhood of Canton, repairing violence and looting as well as robbery of the graves in search of valuables.

Ports of Ningbo and Amoy were also taken. In spring 1842 British troops captured the fortress on the outskirts of Wusong in Shanghai, and on June 19th 1842 occupied Shanghai. After that, the British squadron moved along the river Nanjing to Yangtze. Halfway between Shanghai and Nanjing, near the city of Zhenjiang, the battle took place that had a great influence on the course of the war. On the 21st of July in 1842, Zhenjiang was captured, so the British were able not only to threaten Nanking, but went on the Grand Canal (Zhenjiang stands at the intersection of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal), cutting off vital links between the Southern provinces of the country and the capital Beijing.

British forces got a series of victories that brought about the end of the war. But it does not mean that they were unopposed. The Chinese history remembers the heroic defense of Amoy, whose garrison was led by its chief Guan Tian-Piem, and everybody died without receiving any support, but did not give in to the enemy. During the battle for Usuns a heroic commander of Chinese forces Chen Hua-Cheng perished. Widely known exploits of Zhenjiang defenders, a squad courageously fought against the enemy, and was killed to the last man. Zhenjiang defense was highly appreciated by Engels, who said “the British had to make sure that the Tatar-Chinese soldiers, although not possessing the art of war, were not deprived of courage and inspiration.”

The Signing of the Unequal Treaty of Nanking

However, the courageous resistance of individual Chinese troops and garrisons unrelated general plan of warfare, having no unified leadership that operated in isolation from each other, having almost no firearms and being broken by superior force of well-armed British troops. Capitalist predator England won over feudal China and bound upon its peace a treaty signed on August 29, 1842 on the board of the British ship “Cornwallis” and called the Treaty of Nanking. It was the first unequal treaty in the history of China. British trade and settlement of English merchants opened five ports including Canton, Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai. These ports became the first “open ports”, the number of which subsequently increased significantly. “Open Ports” became bastions of foreign colonial exploitation of China. Other articles of the Treaty of Nanking was obliged to pay 21 million liangs of indemnity, liquidate the corporation Kohong, establish a new tariff, according to which the duty on imported and exported British goods ought not to exceed 5% of the value of the goods. Captured by the British, Hong Kong Island became “everlasting possession” of England.

Thus, the Treaty of Nanking created the conditions for the enslavement of the Chinese by British capitalists. According to Wakeman, it gave them a permanent base off the coast of China (Hong Kong) and opened an access of British goods in China that could not defend themselves even with the help of customs duties.

In 1842 in Canton there was a clash between Chinese and English sailors, who caused a widespread outrage with their brazen outrages. Here is how this event was described in a report of Richard Cobden: after the ship of the British barbarians returned from provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang and stopped in Hong Kong, foreigners began to behave in a very challenging way. Foreigners and sailors who lived in the home of the foreign company “Chissano” in Canton insulted people, looted shops being drunk and abused women passing through the streets. During all of these conflicts, local authorities put things in order, and the extreme was not reached. However, people harbored deep hatred of foreigners and thirsted for revenge.

Chinese People's Struggle against the Capitalist Oppressors

During the Opium War 1839-1842, the masses of South China strongly opposed the invaders. The first major attack of patriotic Chinese people during this period was the uprising of villagers Sanyuanli (10 km North-West of Canton) that took place on 30 May 1841. The revolt was raised against the seizure of the local British that cruelly robbed local residents. The rebels have created units to pacify the British. About 100 residents of nearby villages, men and women, joined these units. English detachment of several thousand people was surrounded by the Chinese, whose number was ever growing. Only the intervention of the Manchu government saved the invaders. The uprising in the village Sanyuanli was not the only outbreak of the people's struggle against the British invaders. In these days, the villagers of Sanshantsun attacked a detachment of British troops, taking another road numbering more than 100 people and seizing two guns and other weapons. Hosts of Foshanchen clashed with the British and exterminated several dozen invaders.

Thus, the development of events during and after the Opium War contributed to discrediting of the Qing government, undermining its credibility and facilitating the revolt of the masses of South China that was particularly vulnerable to foreign aggression against the Manchu feudal lords.

Consequences of the First Opium War

 The Opium War had an extremely negative impact the people of China. British and American capitalists, continuing importation of opium into China, began to bring back cotton fabrics vigorously. Waley wrote that the importation of opium increased by 1/3 (from 40 thousand to 53 thousand boxes) in 12 years (from 1838 to 1850). British imports of cotton and woolen fabrics increased from 1842 to 1845 (257).

The rapid growth of the import of opium and tissues caused an outflow of silver from the country that led to a sharp increase in the rate of silver coins. It should be borne in mind that officials in the collection of taxes took over liang of silver on 200-300 chokes, which was more than required for the course. 

Since the peasants had only copper coins, drop of its course negatively influenced their position. The rapid growth of the import of textiles from England destroyed the domestic industry and handicrafts in China. Many of small-scale producers, spinners and weavers were deprived of their livelihood. All of this intensified a class struggle in China, exacerbated social tensions and led to a mighty peasant war known as the Taiping Rebellion.

Marx and Engels paid attention to the liberation struggle of the Chinese people and in a number of articles analyzed the immediate causes of the Taiping rebellion. In the “International Review”, they pointed to the fact that increased imports of English and American goods to China after the first Opium War caused a heavy blow to the Chinese artisans. 

Enduring Middle Empire experienced a social crisis. Taxes stopped coming, the state was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the uprising began, starting with mass murders of mandarins of Emperor Fu Xi. The country was on the brink of death and under threat of violent revolution. (Marx and Engels 319)

Thus, entering of the foreign capital into China has led to the fact that some anti-feudal and anti-Manchu uprisings that broke out in various parts of the country in the first decades of the XIX century merged into a mighty revolution.


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